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Combat Evolved: How Daniel Lasco has become Cal's featured running back

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Sports Editor

OCTOBER 10, 2014

Ninety-two yards of turf separate Cal from the end zone. But with a 2nd and 15 in front of them, the Bears are just looking for enough yards to make their third-down attempt manageable.

Running back Daniel Lasco, lined up in the shotgun to Jared Goff’s left, motions toward the flat on the left side of the field. The ball is snapped, and Goff locks on to Lasco, tossing it to him just moments later.

Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam sees the play developing. He starts tracking down Lasco even before the ball is snapped, rushing toward the left side of the field to meet him.

Lasco, ball in hand, starts to speed by him, leaning toward the sideline as he does so. But he runs into two more Colorado defenders. Cornered with the sideline on his left and a wall of white jerseys in front of him, he stops so quickly he has to touch one hand to the ground to keep his balance and reverses his direction on a dime to his right before making a swift cut upfield. Gillam and the other defenders are caught off balance — they practically watch Lasco run by them.

But another defender is there to meet Lasco head on, inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode. This time, Lasco doesn’t have a way out. Five defenders surround the senior running back, and he does the only thing he can do — lower his pads and brace for impact.

As Lasco collides with Olugbode, something remarkable happens. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t lose speed. In fact, he seems to gain momentum after the impact. With one shoulder, Lasco throws Olugbode onto his back, and the junior running back comes out of his break with more of a head of steam than ever before. He stumbles for just a moment before gaining his footing, and from there, it’s over. There’s no one left to stop him from getting into the endzone, and no one can catch him.

It’s a play that didn’t surprise anyone who has seen how Lasco practices every day.

“Whenever he gets wrapped up, as soon as a lineman or defensive player lets him go, he runs to the end zone,” says defensive lineman Todd Barr. “Practicing finishing runs, that’s why he’s so good at doing it in the game. He gets the first contact he can finish off and run to the end zone like he usually does in practice.”

At the end of the day it goes down as the longest pass play in Cal history — 92 yards — even though Lasco ran for about 94 considering where he caught the ball.

And it’s not just a touchdown for the Bears; it’s a coming-out moment for a back that can do it all: catch, juke, hit and run. And not just hit, but hit hard. And not just run, but run fast.

It’s hard to imagine now, because it’s hard to imagine this about any football player who grew up in Texas, but Lasco didn’t always like football. He was actually “forced” into it, he says, by his mom. Lasco’s uncle played for four years at Texas A&M, and when Lasco’s mom had a son, she pushed him toward football.

“She just always wanted a football player so once she had a son … she was like, ‘He’s going to be my football player,’ ” Lasco says. “She always, you know, wanted me to play football, forced me into it, and at first, I didn’t really like it too much.”

The thing he disliked the most? Contact. And in Texas, full tackle football can start as early as 5 or 6 years old, which is when Lasco started playing. Flag football and touch football aren’t as popular — kids go straight to tackle.

As a 6-year-old playing peewee football, Lasco would take shin guards used for soccer and would strap them to his forearms to play to help soften the blow of some of those hits.

“I used to put them on my forearms and go out there and run around,” Lasco says. “I still didn’t like it.”

Even when he got to middle school, Lasco wasn’t a fan of the sport. He still avoided contact, but now he wasn’t using shin guards anymore — he was using his speed. Lasco was faster than everyone — he could run by people, but wouldn’t choose to run over them. It was always easier to just go around.

But while Lasco hated the contact, he didn’t hate the sport itself. By middle school, football provided Lasco with a sense of camaraderie, and it gave him an outlet to express his frustrations and anxieties.

Lasco grew up in a single-parent household with just him mom around to raise him. At times, he had to move to Florida to stay with his grandparents for a few months.

“It was a different childhood,” Lasco says. “But I don’t really see it as adversity. I see it as things that just made me stronger growing up.”

His dad is back in Lasco’s life now, but not having a father figure as a child could frustrate him. Football served as a release for that.

“I was able to kind of break up out of my shell and express my emotions through football,” Lasco says. “And just kind of used that to get a bunch of frustration, anger, things like that that were locked up inside, just to break free from it.”

“Football definitely helped me through a lot of stuff growing up.”

Now, Lasco is a long way from the peewee player who avoided contact by running by defenders. The Lasco of 2014 has rebuilt himself in college as the kind of bruising back who gains yards by breaking contact, picking up yardage in small, consistent chunks. He seems to always be able to fall forward for a few crucial yards for the Bears.

He no longer shies away from contact. Now, it gives him an adrenaline rush.

“If it wasn’t for the contact, I probably wouldn’t continue playing football,” Lasco says. “You know, ’cause that’s the fun part about it.”

Lasco loves football now — and every aspect of it. The coaches are actually trying to pull him from kickoff coverage duty, Lasco says, because it’s so much running for him, but he loves that too.

“I love hitting people. I love getting hit,” Lasco says. “I love, you know, waking up the next day after a football game and having all the cuts and bruises and things like that and just looking at it and just knowing how much hard work I put in to get all that stuff. … That’s what gets me excited.”

It’s a trait that shows up in games as well as in practice.

“It’s always a struggle bringing Daniel down,” Barr says. “He strives on being the toughest running back on the field, and I feel Daniel displays that in the game.”

Lasco is putting up an impressive 6.18 yards per rush this season, up from 4.73 during a frustrating 2013 year. He has three touchdowns on the ground and two more through the air. And his 81.6 rushing yards per game have brought balance to a Cal offense that was desperately lacking it a season ago.

“That was the biggest thing that irked me, was when everybody was saying, ‘Oh, Bear Raid, Bear Raid, Bear Raid, pass pass pass, that’s all we’re going to do is pass the ball,’ ” Lasco says. “And I was like, ‘No we’re not just going to be a throwing-the-football team. We can run the ball, and I know we can run the ball.’ ”

Now, with Lasco leading the way, the Bears can.

Riley McAtee is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee

OCTOBER 10, 2014

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